2001 Jordan Institute
Talking to Parents About TPR
As any social worker who has been through the process knows, it is not enough to know the laws, policies, and procedures behind termination of parental rights (TPR). Even with all this firmly in your grasp it still falls to you to talk about TPR with the family involved.
What you say to parents will depend a lot on their unique circumstances and your relationship with them. Although no one can tell you what to say—there is no right or easy way to have this conversation—the following may help.
Your First Discussion
Good social work practice requires you to begin to prepare for the possibility of TPR from the moment a case is substantiated. However, it is not appropriate to discuss TPR with parents unless their child is taken into DSS custody or DSS petitions a court to take custody of the child. Discussing TPR before this point would be premature, and could severely hurt your chances of establishing a trusting, supportive relationship.
If their child is taken into DSS custody, talk clearly and honestly with parents about TPR. Make sure they understand what TPR means and that, though it is not what anyone wants, TPR is often a necessary part of the “alternate” plan your agency will need to pursue if it is not possible for their child to return home. As part of your initial discussion about TPR, it may be helpful to use the explanation of TPR found in Understanding Foster Care: A Handbook for Parents:
If their children are already in foster care, it will be helpful to leave parents a copy of this handbook, which you can obtain through your agency.
This discussion about TPR should be only the first of many. Each time you meet with the family to go over their family case plan or to discuss something else, remind parents of the gravity and potential consequences of their involvement with your agency. When you bring TPR up in these conversations make it clear that you and your agency are committed to helping the family address the issues that caused them to be involved with you. Explain that you bring up TPR not as a threat, but to motivate them to act so it does not happen to their family.
If families understand what TPR is and why agencies seek it, they may be better able to help their children move on to their adoptive homes if TPR does happen.
If It Seems Inevitable
In some cases, despite everyone’s best efforts, it is not possible for children to return home. In these cases, you and your agency must pursue the alternative plan you have devised to ensure that the children involved grow up in a safe, permanent home. Before you can help the parents and children understand and accept this change in plans, you must make some adjustments yourself.
One of the most important things to understand about this switch in plans is that it does not have to be all or nothing when it comes to your relationship with the parents. As one former child welfare supervisor explains, “The most successful worker I ever supervised had this approach: she would say to parents ‘I support and respect you as a person, but I can no longer support you as a parent.’ Parents did not always hear this, but she truly looked at TPR and relinquishment this way. Because of this, I think, she was better able to support parents, which of course helped the children.”
If approached in the right way, some parents are willing to relinquish their rights to their children, which is one of the best ways to reduce the trauma to their kids.
If it seems likely that your agency will soon pursue TPR, in most cases you will want to encourage parents to consider voluntarily relinquishing their parental rights. Before you approach parents about this, however, you should talk both with your agency’s attorney and the parents’ attorney.
The Court of Appeals in the Maynard case, 116 N.C. App. 616 (1994), held that the parents’ right to counsel in a juvenile abuse and neglect case includes the right to counsel about the decision to relinquish the child for adoption. Not all parents want to or will consult with their attorney about this decision, but you must ensure the parents’ attorney is notified of the relinquishment discussions and that the parents understand their right to legal advice on this issue. Your DSS attorney can help insure that timely notice is given (Thompson, 2001).
When you do discuss relinquishment, explain it in a straightforward way, as in the following:
Emphasize the benefits to the child and to them: relinquishment can be an act of love that can spare both parents and child a painful, protracted legal battle.
The Final Discussion
Regardless of how you approach it, the news that your agency has decided to pursue termination of their parental rights will be devastating to parents. Because this can be such a difficult conversation, it is wise to take safety into consideration beforehand. If possible, do not have a TPR conversation by yourself with parents. For other suggestions for improving your personal safety and handling angry people, see Practice Notes v3#2 (http://www.sowo.unc.edu/fcrp/Cspn/vol3_no2.htm).
Closure. After a TPR order has been signed, if at all possible, meet with the parents to explore the possibility of planning and preparing them for a “good-bye” visit with their child. Visits of this kind are an opportunity to continue the process of preparing the child for a new family, for parents to give their “blessing” as the child embarks on this new stage of life, and a chance to gather some previously missing information that may prove helpful to the child. You may also want to consider giving parents the opportunity to write or video tape a “good-bye” and “blessing”—their child will need this at different stages of his or her life and adjustment in placement.
Appeals. It is also important to note that if TPR is granted, parents can appeal to the Court of Appeals. During an appeal the trial court has the authority to order visitation or other contact between the child and birth family (7B-1113). Appeals generally take between 11 and 13 months. This delays the finalizing of an adoption and can be an additional stressor for the adoptive family and child: should an appeal occur, you or your DSS attorney will want to explain the appeals process to them. To access Jane Thompson’s handout on the steps in a TPR appeal, go to <http://www.sowo.unc.edu.fcrp/Cspn/tpr_appeal.pdf>.
Other Reasons for Contact. Even after a case is closed you may work with parents again. Sometimes parents become involved with the agency because of other children in their care. Other times parents will contact the agency or individual workers to inquire about the well being of their children or to try to find out where they live. It probably won’t help to worry about these encounters ahead of time, outside of taking normal steps to assure your safety and that of everyone in the agency. This is not to say that all encounters will be negative. Some social workers have received letters from birth parents months or years after TPR has occurred. These parents have written to thank them for their support and to assure them that they understand now, if they did not at the time, that TPR really was in the best interests of their child.
© 2001 Jordan Institute for Families